A black coffin.
Blazing alongside the sun like a miniature counterpart. Sunspots were mirrored in its undulating surface like immense, clenching muscles. It was travelling at over twenty miles per second, but in the dense shroud of space, with only the fiery heart of the solar-system as companion, it seemed hardly to move at all. The course had been fixed for millennia, a series of gentle, gravity aided parabola, weaving through the galaxy in what would, to human timescales, seem an endless dance . . .
At last, the object began to slow.
Ahead shone a new source of light.
“Suggestions?” Danner inquired, his handsome features under-lit by the glow of the Nav console.
Captain Wix shrugged. “You say there’s a ninety percent probability it’s junk. Why squander a ten-percent chance it’s not?” As she laid a palm on the screen, faint lines of concentration tried to eke their way through her waxy, age-preserved brow. She was fifty-two, but could easily have passed for decades younger. “Magnesium, copper and a smattering of gold, but, if I’m honest, it’s the high presence of silicon’s grabbed my interest. Among other things.”
Danner laughed, “Life?”
“Why not?” Her narrow gaze held a hint of humour.
Danner turned to the other crew-members gathered around the bridge. “Captain says life.”
The two remaining men – youthful, bearded Eben and grizzled old Hobey – and one remaining woman – Palis – returned his look of amused resignation. Palis slapped on a cig-pack, laughing. She was stocky, short-haired. Beneath the pack her muscular forearms crawled with intricate tattoos. “I’m as stupid as she is, so I can’t rule that out. Just a little confused why Command didn’t intercept the signal before us. They’ve got eyes a lot further out than this.”
Wix was smiling now. “There wasn’t one.”
“What aren’t you telling us, Wix?” Eben asked, squinting in the low cabin light. At twenty, he was the youngest member of the crew. The shaggy beard that currently sat in a low-gravity cloud around his pimpled cheeks seemeed incongruous on that boyish countenance. “If it’s matter, we can track it.” Gliding to the screen beside Danner he started running through the signal’s time-frame.
After a moment of hesitation, Hobey joined him. Same age as the captain (except he looked it), he nevertheless had more experience than all of them combined. “When’d we pick it up?”
Wix proceeded to the captain’s chair and made herself comfortable before replying. “Vendetta’s sensors started pinging just over an hour ago, but I didn’t see anything worth waking you all up for until I picked up the silicon, about ten minutes ago now. And yes, you’re right, Eben, we should have been able to track it a lot sooner, every damn thing bigger than an atom has a signature. But given it popped up now, what does that tell us?”
Eben glanced up, brow knotted. “It was cloaking?”
Wix nodded. “And what does that tell us?”
The room fell silent. The Captain had been playing them, as usual.
“Exactly,” Wix said. “Now get us in close, Danner, you gorgeous bastard, and weigh anchor!”
The Vendetta drew alongside the object. A section of the flank irised open, blue light leaked into space. Two pin-prick figures were silhouetted in the giant doorway.
“Where is it?” Eben said. “Nothing but stars.”
“We’re between it and the Sun, boy,” Hobey said. “Look for irregularities in the – wait, there it is!” His gloved hand jabbed past Eben’s visor. “We’re right on it!”
Eben looked. He saw a black outline, cutting across the shining points. It was less than a kilometre distant. “Got it,” he said, and gave his companion a nudge. “Extreme old age before youth.”
Grinning, Hobey pushed from the airlock. His pale suit shone like a ghost in the blue light. Puffs of gas jetted from nozzles on his shoulders and lower back as he drifted away, gathering speed. Eben took a deep breath before launching after him.
“Is it me -” Hobey said through the link “- or does it seem to be slowing down?”
Eben studied the approaching shape. It was hard to gauge distance with all the factors that had to be taken into account (their own speed, relative to the Vendetta, and the barely-visible object’s speed, relative to this), but he conceded that Hobey might have a point. There was the slightest suggestion of drag as they closed, and he found himself having to make minute course corrections to stay on track. Drawing alongside his partner’s streaking form he said, “Of course, being old, you’ll have heard of the Abukara Maru.”
Hobey stared straight ahead. “There’s a distinct probability I’ve heard everything you ever have and more than you ever will. Besides -” Now he did turn. “That was a ship. A human ship. There’s no room in this thing for ghosts bigger than a few feet.”
Eben gave in to a laugh, but his eyes were fixed on the rapidly approaching shadow.
They stopped a short distance away.
Wix’s voice came through the link. “What d’you see?”
Eben related: “It’s completely black. As in, the blackest. Shine a laser on this thing you’ll get nothing back . . . Likewise, having some trouble with visual identification, despite what the instruments are telling us, because you can hardly see the damn thing! From a distance it looked like – a coffin. But now it’s blurring, like my eyes don’t want to take it in. Don’t think it’s solid. Kind of lumpy. A rough rectangle, more like a lozenge really, nothing in the way of edges or straight lines. No markings whatsoever. Oh, and definitely not natural.”
“There’s symmetry,” Hobey added. “The object’s proportioned around a central axis – and the boy’s right, this wasn’t formed, but built by something . . . Looks like you got your aliens, Wix. I’m going to touch it.”
“Roger that, Hobey, rather you than me, but be careful.”
“Yeah, be careful,” Eben said. “Also, I’m thirty-four. One more boy.”
Hobey managed to remain deadpan. Triggering a quick burst on his pack, he travelled the remaining distance, reached out his gloved hand and laid it upon the object. Eben released the breath he’d been holding; he’d half expected the other’s palm to pass right through, or else watch in horror as the old bastard was sucked head first into nothingness! Hobey said, “Difficult to say for sure, feels like metal. Solid, but smooth as glass.”
Exultant cries carried through the link. Wix said, “Get them tethers on sharpish, boys. ‘Bout time you two started earning your keep!”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” Hobey said. He glanced at Eben, his grizzled face split with a grin. “Except only one boy up here.”